When Nature’s Wrath Alters Your Business Travel Plans

The recent devastation of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria pulverized Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and racking up billions of dollars in property loss. These massive storms, as well as others, also wreaked havoc on corporate travel, crippling a good portion of the business economy by preventing companies from getting employees to their destinations.

FlightAware’s cancellation tracker reached the 3,000 mark the Sunday that Hurricane Irma hit Florida as airports closed throughout the state. But travel issues didn’t ease once the airports reopened, because there was still the issue of missing aircraft. According to reports, JetBlue didn’t have a single plane in the state of Florida and most other airlines cleared out their aircraft from vulnerable airports ahead of the storm. So, flights couldn’t resume until airlines flew aircraft back into the state. This meant that a large number of business travelers, in one of the most convention-friendly states in the U.S., were either stranded or unable to land.

This leaves us with the question: How do you keep stormzillas like these from throwing an oversize wrench into even the most carefully orchestrated travel management plans?

The simple answer: You can’t. But there are ways to minimize the collateral damage that the next big storm brings when planning business travel.

Travel Management Companies can help, as they monitor global weather conditions daily, so as to respond quickly when major disruptions to travel occur. These companies also receive automatic flight updates, enabling them to immediately rebook individuals onto different flights. Due to the fickle nature of hurricanes, which can force additional flights to also get cancelled, companies must investigate ground transportation options as well.

Here are four sanity-saving tips that might come in handy while traveling during hurricane season:

    1. Book flights wisely:

Choose an early morning flight. That way if your flight gets cancelled you have the entire rest of the day to find an alternative flight. And if possible, pick an airline with tons of flight options—the more the merrier when you positively have to get to a game-changing meeting.

  1. Must-Have Phone Apps:

Any app on your phone or tablet that displays a 7-Day Forecast (such as The Weather Channel) is a godsend and helpful when planning business trips. Don’t wait until a storm hits to start making alternate plans. Stay ahead of the weather system game and make your contingency plans as far ahead as possible.

  1. The domino effect:

Always remember that even though your flight lifts off in Chicago (where you are unlikely to get hit with a hurricane), chances are the weather is going to be much different when you land in Miami (where the possibility always looms). Be aware of the weather in all cities on your itinerary. Some airlines will even address customer service issues on their social media pages. JetBlue and Delta are among those that used Twitter to help passengers during Hurricane Irma.

  1. Allow for extra time:

For business travelers trying to get somewhere in unpredictable weather, one of the best suggestions is to simply give yourself plenty of time to get where you are going. While it might cost a little more to book a flight the day before or put an extra night for a hotel room on your AMEX card, but weighed against the option of missing a meeting with a client, it is an investment well worth taking. And if you do find yourself stranded in an airport, turn it into your temporary office.

Inclement weather will always threaten business travel. But by being pro-active in how you handle the situation, you’ll find yourself handling all the adversity thrown your way, no matter which way the wind blows.

Hurricane Debris Removal Costs Climbing

It’s difficult to find a photo of Houston, Miami, or any city hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that doesn’t contain mountains of debris. As cleanup continues, more trash is piling up everywhere. Cities and towns are faced with a number of issues including costs, expediency, manpower and just what to do with all that trash.

Reuters reported that cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took about a year. Hugh Kaufman, a retired EPA solid waste and emergency response analyst said the overall bill for Katrina was $2 billion, the largest to date. That cleanup spanned several states and the demolition of the more than 23,000 homes in the New Orleans area alone. He believes the combined cleanup tab for Harvey and Irma will top Katrina‘s.

In Houston, city officials estimate that about 8 million cubic yards of debris will need to be hauled away, enough to fill up the Texans’ NRG Stadium twice. There are about 100,000 piles of trash in the city, with collection farther along in some neighborhoods than in others, according to the New York Times. Moving these mountains of garbage has been left to county and local officials, who hire debris removal companies to help. FEMA reimburses local governments for 90% of their cost. About $136 million in federal funds were released to pay for initial cleanup around Houston, Reuters said.

In Brevard County, Florida, it is estimated there will be 600,000 cubic yards of trash hauled away—compared to 800,000 cubic yards after Hurricane Matthew—which they anticipate will take about a month, Florida Today reported. Because there is no set schedule for pickup, a number of residents decided not to wait, instead hauling their debris to landfills, causing traffic tie-ups.

Where will all this trash go? In Texas, contracted waste haulers and municipal crews are moving trash to dozens of landfills.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency who dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy told the New York Times that figuring out what to do with debris is one of the most challenging aspects of any storm. Because decisions are generally made at the local level, she said, “every community has to kind of reinvent the wheel.”

Setting aside appliances like refrigerators for recycling, chipping downed trees for mulch instead of burning them, prevents pollution and extends the life of landfills, Enck said, adding that leaking landfills present a hazard that can pollute groundwater.

A number of municipalities are asking residents and businesses that put their trash out for pickup to separate trees and other plant material from debris such as shingles, fences and roofing materials.

Florida Today offered these guidelines for preparing storm debris for pickup:

  • Debris should be placed on the curbside, but not in the road or on a sidewalk.
  • Debris should be sorted into separate piles—such as piles for vegetation, for wooden construction debris and for metal construction debris—to help speed up the pickup process.
  • Vegetation and other debris should be cut into sections no longer than 4 feet.
  • Do not use bags for yard waste, as it makes it impossible to recycle or mulch.
  • Do not put yard waste on top of storm drains, as it could block receding waters from Hurricane Irma flooding.
  • Neatly stack construction and demolition debris (drywall, roof shingles, siding, carpet, fencing and docks).
  • Never place debris next to utility poles or transformers, under power lines, on top of water meters, by fire hydrants, near vehicles, next to mailboxes or fences.
  • Do not place debris on other people’s property.

Hurricane Flooding Affecting Agricultural Supply Chains

The trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricane Harvey on Texas and Louisiana and Hurricane Irma in Florida have created major problems for agricultural producers in these states. The damage is expected to affect supply chains in for businesses including grocery chains, restaurants and livestock ranches as massive rainfall and flooding have interrupted harvesting cycles for crops like wheat, rice, corn and citrus fruits. Short-term economic losses are already being estimated, while concerns persist about the storm’s long-term effect on crops, soil and machinery.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, Louisiana and Texas are respectively the third and fifth-largest rice producers in the United States. While Louisiana planted almost 400,000 acres of rice this year, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist Dustin Harrell said a recent survey revealed that only about 10,000 acres of first-crop rice remains left for harvest in south Louisiana. “The big unknown at the moment is the ratoon rice in that area,” Harrell said. Ratoon rice is a staple for many companies which grows from the remnants of what has already been harvested. “[It’s] very important economically and it, too, can be lost if the ratoon stubble remains submerged for several days.”

For Texas growers, some experts estimate that a substantial portion of their rice crop is completely unusable. “I estimate 80% of the Texas rice crop (170,000 acres) was cut before the storm hit and the remainder is totally lost. Rain normally makes grain, but this is so much more than rain,” said Dwight Roberts, president and CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association located in Houston. “[As of Aug. 29] it’s hard to really even know the condition of harvested rice. We’ve got broken communication, no electricity for some areas, and flooded storage in places. There are so many unknowns.”

In a statement issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Sept. 14, commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledged that rice harvested following Harvey faces risk of contamination. He said steps are being taken to prevent affected rice from being passed on to consumers or animals that could consume these crops, since broken grain can be used for pet food. He made particular mention of the Texas rice crop, saying that so far the agency had “not issued a ban on rice or any other food crops,” adding that rice grown in normal conditions and rice that has not been exposed to contaminated floodwaters may enter commerce. “Also, rice and other crops that were harvested and stored safely before storms hit should not be considered impacted by these events,” he said. 

The storms affected another key commodity: citrus fruits. The USDA ranks Florida and Texas as the respective first- and third-largest producers of oranges and grapefruits, and the storms took a bite out of their crops as well. Florida’s grapefruit harvest was already estimated to be the lowest in 50 years, with growers and experts expecting near-35% percent losses in the top-producing districts. According to USA Today, specific varieties of oranges like navel and Valencia might see a 25-to-35% loss.

“That puts every grower on the East Coast in red ink” for this year, said Andy Taylor, senior vice president and chief financial officer for the world’s largest grapefruit processer, Vero Beach-based Peace River Citrus Products Inc. “Efforts to salvage some of that and get it processed into juice,” however, are unlikely to save even 10% of the fruit dropped, Taylor added.

During his press conference, Gottlieb said the FDA has dispatched experts to work with state regulators and directly with producers to address questions and concerns about mold and other contaminants. He also recognized the need to get boots on the ground in order to assess the quality of the crops, “or else crops that might be safe—because they were not exposed to contaminated floodwaters—could age past their point of use.”

The FDA distributed resource guides in reaction to the storms. For more general information on evaluating the safety of food and animal food crops exposed to flood waters, visit here. A QA on crops harvested from flooded fields intended for animal food can be found here.

Beware of Fire Ants During Hurricane Cleanup

While Texas, Florida and other states dry out from the trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricanes Harvey and Irene, there is much to be done and many hazards to watch out for when clearing trees and removing soggy remains from homes and offices.

While cleaning up outdoors, people should keep in mind that many animals are also displaced. These include 20 species of snakes (in Texas), alligators, deer and raccoons, according to the Washington Post.

What they may not be on the lookout for, however, are floating rafts of fire ants, which have a painful, itchy sting, Smithsonian reported. The ants, which send some 25,000 people to the hospital each year, can be found in a number of states, including Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and California. They have a way of coping with large amounts of water by clinging to each other and forming floating rafts that can contain 500,000 or more fire ants.
Photo: ScienceNews

These rafts are actually floating colonies protecting the queen, which is in the middle. They can survive for weeks until they find a dry surface—any dry surface.

According to Popular Science:

Normal ants bite and then spray acid on the new wound, but fire ants are much worse. They bite, hold on, and inject a venom containing 46 different proteins, including poisons that sometimes affect the nervous system. They also have a more brutal attack pattern than many social insects. If you knock over a beehive, not all the bees will come after you—most colonies have a few dedicated warriors to protect the clan. When fire ants are disturbed, however, they all attack. About one in every hundred people will have a full-body response to the stings, such as an allergic reaction or even hallucinations.

As Eric Chaney at the Weather Channel warns, the ants can remain a problem even after the floodwaters recede and it is easy to accidently happen upon them, hunkered down amidst debris piles. According to the Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, “Laundry piles are convenient places that present lots of tunnels for the ants. They may be attracted to moisture or food residue or oils on soiled clothing. Often, reports of ants in laundry occur following a flood.”

Those venturing into flood waters are advised to wear rubber boots, cuffed gloves and protective rain gear to keep ants off their skin. Popular Science recommends spraying ant rafts with their kryptonite—soapy water—which can cause them to sink.